The cow, the wolf & the blogger

October 11, 2010

We are proud to announce that the pen, the  brush and the needle is on the board of judges for the “Weird Medieval History Contest” held over at Got Medieval. In order to win the contest all you have to do is “to find the weirdest claim about the Middle Ages on Wikipedia” – if you feel like entering you can find the detailed rules and regulations here.

Even if you have no intention of entering the contest you might still find it worthwhile to check out Got Medieval which is probably the funniest medieval blog in the whole wide web. It’s definitely the funniest I’ve ever seen. This is mostly due to blogger Carl Pyrdum’s witty way of writing but it’s also due to what he writes about: On a regular basis his blog features musings on and pictures of marginalia, i.e. those illustrations on the margins of medieval manuscript pages that tend to be a bit, well, peculiar. You know, you may be looking at an ordinary bible or a book of prayers from, say, the 14th century and suddenly realize that at the bottom of the page, right underneath the holy text, there’s a tiny figure showing off his/her bare arse. Or a nun collecting the fruits of what prudish 19th century scholars described as the “tree of marvels“. Or a heavily armoured knight fleeing from a snail. Quite frequently those marginal illustrations also show animals, usually monkeys, engaged in human occupations like playing musical instruments or suchlike. Another favourite Carl has mentioned more than once is the “hunt of the hares” where it’s the hares doing the hunting while the humans and their hounds find themselves cast as prey.

Detail of facade decoration, Hasenhaus, Vienna (Watercolour by Salomon Kleiner, 1749). Image © by racaire*

Today this kind of, shall we say, burlesque imagery is usually associated with marginal decoration in manuscripts but in the middle ages it was also frequently found in a much larger scale, that is to say as subject of mural paintings. Not necessarily on the walls of churches, of course, but in the halls and on the façades of noblemen’s castles and of merchants’ houses. One of the most prominent examples was the so called “Hasenhaus” (“Hare’s house”) in Vienna. Situated on one of the city’s main roads, the Graben, this house had its façade decorated around 1509 with an extensive cycle of paintings showing a very detailed hunt of the hares. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in the 18th century, and we only know its appearance from a watercolour by Salomon Kleiner, executed in 1749.

Detail of facade decoration, Hasenhaus, Vienna (Watercolour by Salomon Kleiner, 1749). Image © by racaire*

With most other medieval façade decorations, in Vienna and elsewhere, we aren’t even that lucky: They have been destroyed, overpainted or simply erased by wind and weather and there are no watercolours, prints or other illustrations documenting their appearance. While a 15th century description of Vienna** claims that all of the burghers’ houses were adorned with splendid paintings both on the inside and on the outside, today only one small fragment of those exterior decorations survives. It may be found on a seemingly inconspicuous house in Bäckerstrasse 12 but even here the larger part of the medieval images has been destroyed when the façade was refurbished in the 18th century:

Fragment of facade decoration, Bäckerstrasse 12, Vienna

What is still visible is a cow lying in front of a backgammon board. To the left of the board there appears the grey snout of a wolf, and behind it there’s the fragmented figure of a man, dressed in red, using a sort of brush to chase away a fly from before the cow’s eyes. We are able to reconstruct what’s missing thanks to a description from the 18th century when the lost parts of the painting were still visible. Thankfully they were also accompanied by extensive inscriptions explicating their content: As is still apparent the cow and the wolf are engaged in a game of backgammon, but according to the inscriptions they weren’t playing just for fun: They had put up their skin as a stake! Another inscription identified the man in red as a furrier who, in the company of a now lost hunter, was eagerly awaiting the end of the game.

If you look up the painting in a guidebook or on the internet you’re likely to get one of the following explanations of its meaning:
1) You’ll be fed a twisted, romantic tale involving a judge called Hieronymus Kuh [that would be “Jerome Cow” in English] and his beautiful daughter who lived at the time of duke Rudolf IV., i.e. in the mid 14th century. That story, however, was invented only in the 19th century, and can’t be true for the simple fact that the painting was only executed at the beginning of the 16th century, more or less contemporary to the decoration of the “Hasenhaus”.
2) You’ll be told with great authority that the image was intended as satirical anti-Protestant polemic. That interpretation, though, was brought up only in 1883 by local historian Wilhelm Kisch and is based on the erroneous assumption that the painting dates to the late 18th century when anti-Protestant polemics were indeed widespread in Vienna.

Fragment of facade decoration, Bäckerstrasse 12, Vienna

What it boils down to is: We simply got no idea what message the painting is trying to convey. So instead of looking for some underlying moralizing intention as if it was a movie by Michael Haneke, why don’t we just treat it like e.g. a Mel Brooks film, lean back and enjoy what’s there to see: A friggin COW, wearing glasses, playing backgammon with a wolf!

* The images of the “Hasenhaus” come courtesy of Racaire. You can find even more images of it in Racaire’s flickr-account (simply enter “hasenhaus” in the search box), and there’s loads of other interesting stuff to be discovered on her website and her blog.

** Written by none other than the Italian humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini who went on to become Pope in 1458 assuming the name of Pius II.

One Response to “The cow, the wolf & the blogger”

  1. Racaire said

    I am very happy that you find my photos useful :)

    …and I would like to point you to two other photos:

    – here a funny detail of the Neidhart Fresken:
    (yeah, a hand and a female breast *lol*)

    – and as far as I can tell, I think I found a wallpainting that looks like a devil in the church “Michaelerkirche”:
    unfortunately it’s not easy to get a useful photo of it… I will try it again the next time :)

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